The latest books by middle-grade mavens Morris Gleitzman and Karen Foxlee provide readers with fantastic rollercoaster rides that engage the mind, the heart and the emotions in equal measure. Reading them is like taking a masterclass in the art of writing novels for children.
Both Always (Penguin, $19.99) and Dragon Skin (Allen & Unwin, $19.99) unerringly deal with difficult subjects. And neither writer waters down reality for their intended readership of 10- to 14-year-olds. There's violence, murder, racism and bullying in Gleitzman's Always, and loss of a loved one and domestic abuse in Foxlee's Dragon Skin. But each book is also imbued with humour, warmth, whimsy and lashings of hope.
Gleitzman is one of Australia's most beloved and respected children's authors. Since 1985, he's written over 40 books, has won or been shortlisted for numerous awards and has been the Australian Children's Laureate.
Always is the seventh and final book in his hugely successful Felix and Zelda series. Drawing on the skills he learnt as a screenwriter, Gleitzman writes in short, taut, well-crafted sentences. His plots move along at a cracking pace, just like a good adventure film, with lots of unexpected twists and turns. There's Nazi treasure to be uncovered, a secret code to be deciphered, a murder mystery to solve, and an uncle to be saved from the clutches of the dastardly neo-Nazi group the Iron Weasels.
But there's nothing formulaic about Gleitzman's storytelling. He writes with sensitivity and humour about difficult subjects and fraught relationships. The reader cares deeply about what happens to 10-year-old Wassim, his caring but compromised Uncle Otto, and the wonderful but wizened Felix Salinger - the eponymous hero of the whole series.
Gleitzman starts the first sentence of each chapter of his books with the word from the title. In this case it's "Always stay hopeful", which certainly sums up Wassim's approach to life. The strength of the storytelling lies in the interweaving first-person narratives. This allows the reader to get inside the heads of the two main characters and listen to their different voices - the young and the old, the naive and the experienced, the impetuous and the considered.
Together, these characters create a whole that propels the story forward, leading to a sad but ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Compared to Gleitzman, Karen Foxlee is still at the beginning of her writing journey as a children's author. Dragon Skin is her fourth novel for children. However, she has already carved a place for herself in the Australian children's literature world with three award-winning books, including Lenny's Book of Everything, a quirky and endearing masterpiece about sibling love and loss.
Dragon Skin is a beautifully packaged, engrossing and touching wonder of a book, full of heartache and hope. Foxlee interweaves three interrelated stories into one, using symbolic imagery, the outback setting and an injured baby dragon to bind them together.
The first layer of storytelling involves the main character Pip and the baby dragon she finds at the waterhole. The intriguing creature is starving and its delicate wings have been shredded. Saving Little Fella involves secrecy, Weet-Bix, sticky tape and persistence, along with the combined hidden talents of three novice dragon keepers - Pip and her new friends Laura and Archie.
The second story layer explores Pip's friendship with her soulmate Mika. He is no longer a part of her daily life, but he is still her constant companion. The story of their friendship and what happened to Mika is slowly revealed as the story progresses.
The third layer involves Pip's fraught home life. Her once vibrant mother is trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship with her controlling boyfriend Matt, who makes life a misery for both Pip and her mum.
Foxlee expertly interweaves these three stories together, as Pip nurses the ailing dragon, deals with her grief over the loss of Mika, makes unexpected friendships, and tries to find ways to encourage her mother to escape from Matt.
Foxlee's touch is light but uncompromising in the way she depicts domestic abuse. There is a sense of menace whenever Matt is in the house, with Pip and her mother withdrawing into themselves and tiptoeing around this volcano of a man who could explode at any moment. And Pip's mother's ambivalent feelings about her partner are cleverly revealed in italicised lists of the search terms she uses on her mobile phone, which range from ways to keep your partner happy to women's helplines.
Like Always, Dragon Skin is a powerful and heart-warming book with an import message. And at the heart of both of these children's books is the importance of friendship and of holding on to hope, no matter what.
- Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author. Her latest historical novel for children is Will the Wonderkid: Treasure Hunter of the Australian Outback.